Sharon Horgan: She's got pulling power

She's been called the next big thing in comedy but few people have ever heard of Sharon Horgan. Her next painfully funny show should take care of all that, says James Rampton
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The Independent Online

In the first episode of Pulling, Sharon Horgan's critically lauded BBC3 comedy which earned her a Bafta nomination for Best Sitcom earlier this year, her character, Donna, wakes up one day and realises that she no longer loves her fiancé, Karl (Cavan Clerkin). In fact, she's repulsed by him.

"I was lying in bed with Karl," she tells her girlfriends to whom she flees after ditching him, "looking at him snoring, with a bit of saliva falling out of his mouth – and I wondered what it would be like to cut his head off!" This is typical of Horgan. Her comedy can be summed up by the phrase "darkness visible". A rich river of black comedy runs through her work.

However, that has stood her in good stead. Tapping into the same comedy of embarrassment as The Office, Extras, Lead Balloon and Nighty Night, Horgan's edgy work has really struck a nerve. Now, on the back of co-writing (with Dennis Kelly) and starring in Pulling and delivering a memorable performance as the put-upon guest booker in Rob Brydon's Annually Retentive, the young Irishwoman is being hailed as The Next Big Thing in comedy. One newspaper recently described her as the creator of "the best sitcom of 2006... [and] the funniest woman you've never heard of". Phew.

The thing that marks Horgan out is that she is prepared to wander into comic areas that previously were out of bounds. This is a woman who will drop into the conversation a line such as: "Have you ever seen a picture of a murderer and thought, 'he's actually really good-looking'?"

Horgan, who lives in east London with her husband Jeremy Rainbird and young daughter Sadhbh, is once more mining the comedy of the uncomfortable in her latest offering, Angelo's, an ensemble sitcom that starts on Channel Five tomorrow. Co-written (again with Kelly) by and starring Horgan, this new six-parter is set in the eponymous café just off Trafalgar Square in central London. The establishment is the meeting point for an assortment of life's losers.

Horgan plays Karen, a police officer and Angelo's regular, who is unhappily married – no surprise there – to a fellow PC, Dave (Paul Garner). Their misery is exacerbated by the fact that she is aching to have a baby, but has so far failed to conceive.

Today Horgan is having a day off from acting but she is on set at an east London studio in her capacity as associate producer. A brunette who is as sharp as a set of Sabatier chefs' knives, Horgan explains to me over lunch where she found the inspiration for Karen and Dave. "I was at Glastonbury one year, and a policeman and a policewoman walked by, hand in hand. People started whooping and the police officers smiled coyly.

"It made me think, 'what would they talk about at work?' I liked the idea of her fussing over him, brushing the dandruff off his uniform. I'm sure," she adds with a grin, "there would be a lot of handcuff action!"

In characteristic fashion, from that innocent germ, Horgan developed a darker idea: that the couple would be constantly arguing about their infertility. In one toe-curling sequence, she berates her husband in front of a fertility specialist for wasting sperm by frequently pleasuring himself.

The writer, who attended a convent school outside Dublin, explains that Karen is in a bleak place. "She's 35, and her body clock doesn't just tick – it cuckoos on the hour. For Karen, it's not merely top of the list – it's the only thing on the list."

But where does that idea spring from? "You end up writing what you see around you," says Horgan. "I've never been in the same situation as Karen, but I have friends who have been. It's a dark area for comedy, and the subject is painful for a lot of people, but we're not mocking Karen and Dave's infertility. We're laughing at Karen's obsessiveness and the nonsense she comes out with."

Horgan contends that we only care about fictional characters if they are placed in jeopardy. "I don't sit there thinking, 'what dark, shocking comedy can I come up with now?'," says Horgan, who also co-starred last week with Stephen Mangan in the one-off Channel 4 comedy, Free Agents. "But it has to be believable – I like to see the darkness properly. Real pain makes comedy funnier," says Horgan, who is currently working on a second series of Pulling. "One of the best comments I got about Pulling was that people liked the fact that the characters were in a mess."

Horgan has her limits, though. "There are definite boundaries which I won't overstep," admits the 36-year-old, who also fronted the first series of Channel 4's Friday Night Project. "But Nighty Night, with its jokes about cancer and disability, stretched those boundaries and made other writers realise that you can get away with a lot more if it's funny."

The other element that distinguishes Horgan's writing is her lack of sentimentality about women. "In Pulling," she recalls, "I was determined not to romanticise things and pretend that female friendship is this sacred thing. Pulling is saying that you almost always put yourself first and as life progresses you become more and more selfish."

These anti-romantic characters may be harsh, but they touch a chord with viewers. According to Horgan, who has also written for The Catherine Tate Show and Monkey Dust, "a lot of people recognised those characters in Pulling. They said to me, 'that's happened to me' or 'that's like my best friend'."

Perhaps what makes these characters credible is that they are drawn from Horgan's own life. "The main characters in Pulling all contain elements of me. Donna, for example, was trying to find her way out of a dead-end job, and that was based on my experience. I worked in a job centre for six years, and it was hideous."

Aged 27, Horgan packed in the job and went to do for an English degree at Brunel University. "I had to do something – I felt like a loser; that my life wasn't going anywhere," she sighs. She studied creative writing and sent some sketches to the BBC. These won her the 2001 BBC New Comedy Award – and at last she was on her way.

She can scarcely believe how far she's come in the last six years. "It's really exciting," Horgan beams. "Look, over there is a catering truck, and people have made a set and props because of something I wrote. I feel like pinching myself."

Horgan is glad now she didn't achieve instant fame when she was younger. "Maybe I needed to have those mis-spent twenties – to have something to write about now!"

'Angelo's' starts at 11pm tomorrow on Five